Mali has three major tourist attractions that earn it a reputation as one of West Africa's best destinations. Timbuktu is famous for being famous; Djenné is famous for its mosque; and Dogon Country, or Pays Dogon as it's known locally, is famous for its culture, its trekking, and the number of guides who will try to flog you a Dogon tour the minute you step foot in Bamako or Mopti. Luckily the home of the Dogon people is interesting enough to warrant the hype.
The appeal of Dogon Country is two-fold; people come here for the landscape and the culture. The Falaise de Bandiagara (the Bandiagara Escarpment) is a huge cliff that extends about 150km through the scrubland east of Mopti in a southwest to northeast direction. Along this escarpment are dotted the unique villages of the Dogon people, who moved to this area around 700 years ago to escape the influx of Islam into West Africa. The result is a wonderful combination of beautiful landscape and ancient culture that is perfect for exploration on foot. Dogon Country is a place for donkey tracks rather than roads; it's an area that has managed to stay relatively untouched by tourism, and as a result it's a considerable relief after the hassles of Bamako and Mopti. Indeed, it almost feels as if you're not in Mali, especially as people speak Dogon instead of French. It's highly refreshing.
The most striking images in Dogon Country are the villages perched along the escarpment. Because the Dogon were on the run from the spread of Islam, they wanted their new villages to be secure, so instead of building at the base of the cliffs or on the cliff tops, they built their villages into the cliff faces themselves. They weren't the first to do this, though; before the Dogon arrived the previous inhabitants, the Tellem, had built their own villages into the cliffs, and the remains of these even more ancient dwellings can still be seen high up on the falaise, often 100m or so up a sheer rock face. Nobody is quite sure how the Tellem actually reached their houses, but it's probable that the area was forested in those days, so they could have climbed trees, or they could have dropped ropes from the top of the escarpment and climbed down. Whatever, the Tellem houses add a strange mystique to an area that's already pretty bizarre.
Both Tellem and Dogon villages are initially hard to spot. The falaise is a red-brown colour, shooting vertically out of the surrounding sandy scrubland, and the Dogon build their houses out of mud, so they blend into the background perfectly. Walking along the bottom of the escarpment, you can find yourself looking straight at a Dogon village without realising it, until your eyes pick out a regular shape here, or perhaps a thatched roof there. And then you realise the extent of these settlements; they're impressive, not so much because of their size, but because of the way they cling to the steep slopes of the falaise, seemingly defying gravity.
Dogon dwellings are made up of two fundamental building blocks: granaries and houses. These sit around small courtyards with walls connecting the buildings, creating a cosy little environment that instantly feels like a home. Running round the courtyard will be loads of animals, from chickens to goats to donkeys, and everywhere you see women pounding millet and children mucking around in the dust, half naked and smiling in the heat.
The granaries vary from a couple of metres high to three or four metres, but they all follow the same design; they're box-shaped, about twice as high as they are wide at the bottom, and they only have one entrance, just below the roof on one side. This is normally a small square door, maybe two feet across, and below it a wooden spar sticks out for people to grab hold of. On top of the granary is a conical thatched roof of straw, and each granary is lifted off the ground by a construction of stone legs and branches, keeping the grain store out of the reach of vermin. The walls are made of layered mud and straw, and the whole thing has a slightly comic air, not unlike a large cuckoo clock wearing a hat. And they're everywhere; each house has at least one, and most have quite a few more, especially as women have separate grain stores to men. It's these funny-looking granary roofs that give Dogon villages their distinctive look, so it's fitting that grain should be such an important part of Dogon life.
Millet is the main staple that's stored in the granaries. Millet stalks produce little round seeds that the Dogon crush up by pounding large poles into big stone bowls full of grain, separating out the chaff by pouring the crushed mixture from a height of a couple of metres, so the breeze blows the lighter husks away; this is women's work, and the thumping of millet crushers can be heard all day in Dogon, often accompanied by gossip and the sound of children gurgling in the dirt. The flour that remains can be mixed with water to form a thick white gravy that tastes of mild starch, and this forms the staple diet of a huge number of poor Sahel dwellers. It's not unusual to find people eating millet for breakfast, lunch and dinner, varying it between millet cream (a milk-like drink) and millet with some kind of sauce (on good days). It makes millet vitally important in Dogon life, which is why there are so many granaries around.
The houses are a bit more standard than the granaries, being made out of rocks and mud bricks that are smothered with mud on the outside. Most houses consist of a number of box-like rooms on one storey, often linked by a corridor that acts as a veranda, and the roofs are flat with a small lip round the edge to stop you falling off. Indeed, one of the delightful aspects of trekking in the Dogon is sleeping on the roof, as it can get pretty hot inside at night, with the rocks of the house storing the heat of the daytime sun and radiating it at night. You also get to wake up to the stars, which is quite an event under the clear night sky of Pays Dogon.
Dogon villages consist of more than just houses, though. The nerve centre of each village is the togu-na, a low-roofed shelter in the centre of town where the men of the village get together to chat, smoke, drink and, it seems, fall asleep. The togu-na is specially built to prevent you from standing up, as this helps prevent discussions from turning into arguments, and with the roof covered in eight layers of thatched millet stalks and the sides completely open, it's a good place to escape from the sun. Women aren't allowed in the togu-na, just one indication of the sexism of Dogon life; others include the widespread (though illegal) practice of female circumcision (or, to be more accurate, female genital mutilation); the law that women have to live in a separate building during menstruation as it is considered an unclean time by the men; and the fact that women seem to do most of the work.
As well as houses, granaries and togu-nas, there are plenty of mosques, churches and animist fetishes (a fetish being a stone that's holy to followers of the ancient animist belief system of the Dogon). The Dogon are highly tolerant of different religions, and many villages are split up into different areas, one for the Muslims, one for the Catholics, and one for the animists. Although the different religions often live apart, it's not unusual for someone to believe in multiple religions, so you may get a Catholic who's also an animist, who prays in the church and then goes off to sacrifice a chicken at the fetish to placate the local spirits. It's a refreshing change after the in-your-face Islam of northern Africa.
So Dogon has it all: amazing architecture, an interesting and ancient culture, beautiful landscapes and trekking paths everywhere instead of roads. How can you fail to enjoy yourself?
My Experience of Dogon
How can you fail? By being horribly ill, of course. I originally booked a seven-day trek with Mikael, and joining us for the first four days were Gian Luca and Valentina from Italy, and for the first five days Coen and Susan from Holland. However I got so ill I cut it short to five days, returning to Mopti two days early. Being ill in the baking sun of the Dogon was not pleasant; indeed, it was one of the lowest points of my trip so far, which is really saying something. Luckily towards the end things perked up a bit, not because I got better, but because I got used to it. Sometimes rolling with the punches has its own appeal, and in the end I just let Africa pound me senseless.
The first rumblings of discontent started in Mopti. I woke up on the first day of the trek, all packed and ready to head off into Dogon, and instantly had to rush to the toilet, the bottom falling out of my world in depressingly familiar fashion. There was no way I was going to cancel my trip now, not after three days of intensely boring waiting in Mopti, so I clenched my teeth, met up with the rest of the team, and jumped into the car to Djiguibombo, our starting point.
Of course, it wasn't quite that simple. Our taxi, a Peugeot 505, tried to pass a four-wheel-drive coming the other way over a thin bridge, but the other driver refused to pull over and first the front wheel and then the rear wheel of our car slipped over the side of the metre-high concrete kerb. The whole car lurched to the right and the chassis slammed down onto the road; we weren't going anywhere for a while. Amazingly nobody said a thing; the driver got out and looked at the car, the wheels uselessly hanging over the side of the bridge, and he simply shrugged and went off in search of rocks to prop it up. Things go wrong in Africa and there's no point in getting stressed about it; instead we piled out into the shade of a baobab and sat down to watch.
The original plan was to jack the car up so the wheels could be pushed back onto the road, and half an hour later some progress had been made. Luckily for us, at that moment a minibus trundled into view, packed to bursting point with chickens and people, and the entire contingent simply got out and lifted our taxi back onto the road. This is probably the only advantage of having buses so full of people; we were back on the road to Djiguibombo in no time, as if nothing had happened.
On the Roof
Djiguibombo is a pleasant little Dogon village on the plateau above the escarpment, and although it pales into insignificance compared to some of the beautiful villages further along, I found it fascinating because it was the first one we'd visited. It had all the village elements described above, and it soon became apparent that I'd been right to wait for Mikael. Incredibly polite, witty, always smiling and amazingly tolerant of our inane questions, Mikael was obviously an accomplished guide. The others in the group were also delightful, and I figured that we had all the ingredients for a fantastic trek, as long as I could shift my illness. This was going to be good.
The short trek down the escarpment to our first night's stop at Kani-Kombolé felt good too. The views from the top of the cliff were beautiful, with flat scrubland stretching to Burkina Faso in the distance, and as we wandered down the falaise we passed groups of Dogon women carrying baskets on their heads, saying hello and being warmly greeted in return. The Dogon are famous for their greetings, which seem to go on forever; a typical exchange goes something like this:
'Ohh seh-weh mah?' (How are you?)
'Seh-weh.' (I'm well.)
'Ohh mara seh-weh mah?' (How is your family?)
'Seh-weh.' (They're well.)
'Ohh seh-weh dege-mah?' (How was your day?)
'Seh-weh.' (Good, thanks.)
'Ohh mara seh-weh dege-mah?' (How was your family's day?)
'Seh-weh.' (Good, thanks.)
And so on. Often this greeting goes on so long that you end up shouting at the person you're greeting, who's now miles behind you, a dot fading into the distance yelling 'Seh-weh' in answer. Whatever the exchange, as you pass each other, you smile warmly. Everyone smiled on the way down to Kani-Kombolé; so did I.
I wasn't smiling later that night, though. We settled in and ate a meal of rice and the smallest chicken in the world, and Gian Luca, Valentina and I opted for a night's sleep on the roof, under the stars. 'What could be more perfect?' I thought as I lay under the stars, Orion shining on the horizon as I grimaced my way through what I hoped would be the last few muscle spasms of the night.
As the minutes ticked by, the slight breeze that had felt so pleasant when we'd settled down started picking up, and as Orion slowly glided through the sky, it began picking up handfuls of sand from the roof and throwing them in my hair. 'Never mind,' I thought, 'that's why I have a sleeping bag,' and I snuggled down inside, trying to get comfortable on the thin mattress that lay between me and the stone roof. It seemed to work, too, as what felt like a short time later I heard the muezzin start up his 5am call to prayer at the nearby mosque, waking me from my sleepy thoughts with his nasal whining. I peeped out from under my bag, aching like fury, and took a look at the sky, just as the wind howled another handful of sand into my face.
Right at that moment I heard a frustrated Italian curse from next door and saw Gian Luca and Valentina pick up their mattresses and start the torturous process of carrying them down the rickety tree-trunk ladder to the house below. I didn't know why they were bothering; the muezzin's call goes out at 5am, and I figured we'd be up soon anyway, so it didn't worry me too much that I was finding it damn near impossible to get back to sleep in the increasingly gale-force wind.
An hour later something clicked in my mind. Orion was only just overhead, which meant it couldn't be five in the morning – it had to be earlier. I rolled over, looked at my watch, gasped as I saw it was only 3am, and was rewarded by another mouthful of sand blown at high speed right into my face. That did it. The bloody muezzin had started wailing at 2am – two bloody am! – and I hadn't actually managed to get any sleep yet, I'd just drifted off for a few minutes before he'd woken me up. It dawned on me that I was going to have to follow my Italian friends downstairs, so I wrenched myself out of bed, clenched my muscles to prevent any appalling accidents, and somehow managed to get everything off the roof without being blown into neighbouring Burkina.
Downstairs wasn't much better – it was hot, uncomfortable and crowded – but at least the wind was whistling outside, not in my bed. Safe in the knowledge that I'd learned my lesson when it comes to sleeping on a Dogon roof, I tried to pass out on the floor, with a modicum of success. I didn't dream so much as hallucinate, though at least I got through to the morning in one piece.
Unwell in Dogon
Day two was agony. A typical trekking day in the Dogon consists of breakfast, followed by a quick excursion round the village you've stayed in, and a trek of a few kilometres to the next village, taking maybe a couple of hours and arriving at, say, 11am. You then stay there until around 3pm, exploring the village once the sun has stopped being so incredibly hot, and then fit in another couple of hours of trekking to reach your destination for the night, where you take a bucket shower, eat, and sleep. It's not a terribly demanding schedule, but when you're ill it's a nightmare. We set off from Kani-Kombolé for what should have been an easy stroll along the foot of the escarpment, but the combination of an awful night's sleep and my worsening diarrhoea meant I struggled to keep walking. By the time we reached our lunch stop at Teli, I was fading fast.
This was irritating, as Teli is a beautiful village. Up high on the escarpment are lots of old Tellem dwellings – tiny houses that look more like weird beehives, as Tellem buildings are often only a couple of feet high with single holes for windows – and the old village of Teli, only recently abandoned for a more modern bunch of houses on the plain below, is a classic Dogon collection of granaries, houses and winding paths, perched halfway up the escarpment with beautiful views of the countryside. Mikael explained various aspects of Dogon history and folklore, but I couldn't concentrate; I was too busy making sure I didn't ruin my trekking trousers, clenching in silent agony until we made it back to the campement, where the rest of the group ate lunch and I booked a spot in the toilet block. I felt miserable.
The walk to Endé, our stop for the night, was equally distressing, and after a delightful bucket shower under the stars and a bowl of plain rice with some pieces of unidentifiable meat, I went to bed, inside this time. I needed a good night's sleep, and this time I was damn well going to get it.
Unfortunately the cricket that found its way into my room had other ideas. Crickets are the noisiest insects on the planet (apart, perhaps, from cicadas), and my visitor set up shop right near my head, screeching so loudly that the stone walls of my bedroom vibrated in sympathy. I turned on my torch, and he stopped; I turned it off, and he started again; my earplugs did nothing to drown out the symphony, and I was at a total loss what to do. It took half an hour of hunting through the room to track down the mud-coloured cricket on the mud-coloured wall, by which time I barely had enough energy to crush the bastard with my hiking boots. I eventually got back to sleep, but my good night's sleep had been rudely interrupted.
The next morning signalled the end of Ramadan and the festival of Eid al-Fitr. Not surprisingly the end of a month of fasting is a time of great celebration, and a huge gunpowder explosion at 6am was the signal for everyone to leap out of bed and start partying. I needed a party like I needed a hole in the head, but I dutifully dragged myself out of bed and followed the crowds outside the village.
I'm glad I did. Mikael is a Muslim and we followed him into the scrub, and for the first time I saw people in Africa actually running, with streams of smartly dressed Muslims jogging along the road to an impromptu service outside the village limits. By the time we arrived two groups had gathered, one for each different Islamic sect represented in Endé, and each group sorted themselves into ranks of men, women and children, all of them facing east. I watched, fascinated, as the spiritual leader of one group brought out a loudspeaker and started chanting away, while the other group settled for an unamplified service, their holy man happy to stand under a towel held by three men. Umbrellas dotted the crowd to keep off the powerful sun, and throughout the service people continued to arrive, some running from the village and some noisily screeching up on motorbikes. It was pandemonium, quite unlike a Christian church service, and it looked more like a restless classroom at the end of term than a religious service. At one point a herd of cows threatened to run into one of the groups, but some judicious yelling and waving of sticks managed to avert disaster, though by this time it seemed as if the teacher had lost control, as everyone was jabbering away, seemingly oblivious to the chanting going on. People were obviously in the mood for a party, and after a month of abstinence, who can blame them?
Unfortunately, I didn't feel remotely like celebrating. The morning's walk from Endé to Yaba-Talu was an exercise in controlling my pain, and the lunch stop seemed to go on for hours – which it did. I'd assumed that stopping for four hours in the middle of every day would be perfect for a spot of writing and possibly some exploring, but how wrong I was. I was physically far too tired to head out into the midday sun, and whenever I tried to get out my computer to do a spot of writing, it was as if someone had got out a loudspeaker and announced it to the whole village. I'd set up my keyboard and the population of Mali would crowd round, staring at the screen and whispering among themselves. It made writing impossible; I'd try typing something, but you try being creative when half the planet is breathing down your neck. It's like trying to be angry with someone who won't stop smiling; it just doesn't work.
Of course, who can blame them? I'd stare if I lived in a Dogon village and a white guy turned up with a fold-out computer, and I have to keep reminding myself that in Africa, staring and invading someone's personal space is simply not rude; the problem lies with me, not with them. I remember reading a story about a journalist who lived in Africa for a while, and sometimes he'd shut his door for a bit of privacy, so he could concentrate on his latest piece. However, this didn't have the desired effect, as the Africans with whom he lived interpreted the closed door as meaning that there was something wrong, because in Africa you simply don't shut yourself off from other people. So shutting the door would make things worse, as everyone would keep knocking on the door to find out if everything was all right, shattering his concentration completely. I know just how he felt, but instead of getting angry, I just fold up my computer and give up on writing, opting instead for sitting and staring into space. Hell, after three days in Mopti waiting for Mikael, doing nothing for hours on end is practically second nature.
Take Me Home
As with the morning walk from Endé, the afternoon hike was a real struggle as we trudged back up the falaise to Begnimato, one of the most picturesque villages on the trek. I was seriously considering leaving Dogon Country early; I couldn't take much more trekking with such a weak body, and I needed sleep, I needed a bed near to a toilet, and I needed time to get better, none of which was forthcoming in Begnimato.
What a pity, as Begnimato is glorious. Sitting right on top of the cliff, the views of the plains are stunning, and the village has the air of something ancient, something really quite special. It doesn't look that different to other Dogon villages, and still consists of the same granaries, houses and togu-nas that you see throughout Dogon Country, but the way it sits there, surveying the landscape from its cliff-top command, is simply beautiful.
I was in no state to appreciate the beauty, though, and realised that on top of my physical illness, I was beginning to get depressed. I'd waited for this trek for three days and really wanted to enjoy it, and here I was spending most of my time enjoying the olfactory experience of the Dogon's alfresco toilets (well, holes in the ground, to be more accurate). They might have had some of the most wonderful views of all the ablutions I've had the pleasure to use in Mali, but that was scant consolation as I ran for yet another shot at goal. I decided that there was only one thing for it; I would have to stop taking Lariam, as the combination of Lariam depression and physical illness was pushing me close to my limit. I grabbed the one pill I'd brought with me, which I was due to take that evening, and crushed it with my boots, ceremoniously scattering the powder to the winds. I figured I'd take my chances with malaria, and I instantly felt much better. It wouldn't last.
That night my bed consisted of a paper-thin mattress thrown onto a floor that made the north face of the Eiger look flat. I woke up every half an hour to find myself slumped in the corner of the room, but some quick work with some grappling hooks and a couple of pickaxes got me back to the top, from where I could start my slow slumberous slide all over again. It was like going tobogganing in incredibly slow motion, but even that was fun and games compared to the rooster.
At 5am the local cock perched himself right outside my door and started cock-a-doodle-dooing at the top of his voice. I tried the earplugs, and they made no difference; I tried ignoring the bastard, and that made it worse; and finally I tried getting up and throwing stones at the sod, which seemed to do the trick.
Roosters, though, are obviously cleverer that they look, because he waited for 15 minutes, until I'd lulled myself back into a false sense of security, and then he started again. So I went outside and threw stones at him again, and again he retired, squawking. But sure enough, 15 minutes later he was back, this time on the roof right above my head, where I couldn't get to him and he was totally safe; he celebrated by inviting a friend, and together the two of them serenaded me until the sun rose on my bloodshot eyes.
Back Down Again
Day four was therefore another washout, and on the walk from Begnimato to Dourou, further along the escarpment, I reached the lowest point of the trek, and arguably the lowest point of my entire African trip. I was thoroughly drained, feeling awful, bored with all the sitting around in the middle of the day, sick of the same food for every meal, and totally, totally depressed. I decided I would take the taxi back to Mopti with Gian Luca and Valentina, as they had only joined us for four days, and as I struggled my way along the top of escarpment, clenching and seriously considering flying back home and giving up on Africa, something happened. It was gradual, and I didn't notice it at first, but it turned out to be the bottom of the curve; I had reached the most miserable point of my entire trip, and logic dictated that from here, things could only get better. I couldn't give up now; I had given up the Lariam and it would take a few weeks to leave my system, I would soon shift my diarrhoea, and after this trek I had a whole new country to look forward to. Sure, I could fly home, but why not stick it out for a little longer, just in case?
Logic saved the day, so instead of jacking it in right away, I talked to the highly sympathetic Mikael and decided to head back the next day with Coen and Susan. I wasn't physically going to be able to manage seven days, but five sounded about right. And from that moment on, things got better, and I stopped thinking of flying back to London... for now, anyway.
After lunch in Dourou and saying goodbye to the Italians, the four of us dropped down the escarpment to Nombori, and despite the physical strain, I actually enjoyed myself for the first time since day one. I wasn't out of the woods yet, but I got into the rhythm, savoured the views, and when we reached Nombori, I knew I'd made the right decision. The sunset over the escarpment was picture-perfect, the view from the roof of our campement was beautiful, and the people were delightful. I even got a reasonably good night's sleep, which I couldn't quite believe, and before I knew it we were up and about on day five, ready to return back up the escarpment to Dourou, where we would get a car back to Mopti.
I was far too unwell to appreciate the Dogon Country for what it really is. At the time I hated it, but I would have hated anything in that state; in reality the Dogon is a wonderful place. The people are friendly, the landscape is awesome, and even through the haze of Lariam and diarrhoea I managed to crack the odd smile. As a rose-tinted memory, the Dogon will be a delight to revisit from the comfort of my grandad's rocking chair.
I was, however, too weak to concentrate on the Dogon culture and all the stories that Mikael told us, which is a shame. Dogon culture is one of the most amazing aspects of the region, and things like the wonderful carved doors, the animist legends and the mysterious Tellem are fascinating to discover. I was also too ill to appreciate the kola nut, a local narcotic that the Dogon chew incessantly in the same way that the Indians chew pan; I tried one – everyone does – and it tasted like acrid, bitter radishes, not the best taste when you're feeling ill.
I still loved Dogon Country, though. I had to reach the lowest point of my trip, and I had to talk myself down from buying the next flight back to London, but at least I got through unscathed, and from here things can only get better.
And that's got to be a good thing.